The Babadook

The basic elements of the indie-horror flick The Babadook might not sound especially remarkable: a single mother with a troubled kid; a spooky house; a creepy children's book; and a sinister monster lurking in the shadows. But Jennifer Kent's masterful debut feature thrives by using its disquieting and suspenseful tone to tell a story that's essentially a metaphor for loss and coping. The point of Kent's film isn't to try and scare the pants off you — though it certainly does that. It's a terrifying notion to lose someone close to you, and dealing with it can be even scarier than the worst monster you can imagine. --Matt Cohen, writer

Boyhood

Boyhood is a feat of cinematic patience. Shot in snippets over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater's film shows the characters aging and changing before our eyes.

The vignettes we see are those that left a mark on Mason, whose boyhood we follow almost from start to finish. The moments are both small and big: leaving his first friend behind in a move; a ride with Dad to the bowling alley; fleeing his mom's abusive new husband; his first beer. These moments may sound scattered and sometimes trivial, but to Mason — and the audience watching — they are profound.

Finally, Boyhood is an exquisite portrait of motherhood. Patricia Arquette's Olivia is the busy, ever-present guide behind Mason and his sister Samantha — protecting, worrying, providing, and loving. As Mason grows up he comes to recognize his mom as a person, and Olivia comes fully, spectacularly into view. --Lauren Hansen, multimedia editor

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel's intergalactic gag-fest Guardians of the Galaxy got all the buzz this year, but if you were looking for a landmark moment in multiplex superheroics, it came from an unlikelier source: the Russo brothers' Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Released back in March, people might not have expected all that much from the patriotic protagonist's sophmore outing; after all, there's only so much you can do with a shield-tossing throwback. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere came the grittiest, most realistic comic book blockbuster since Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Morally ambiguous, The Winter Soldier has more in common with conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View than its spandex-clad contemporaries. --Daniel Bettridge, writer

The Guest

I saw plenty of movies in 2014, but for sheer cinematic pleasure, nothing could touch the fun I had while watching Adam Wingard's brilliant thriller-horror-comedy The Guest.

The Guest stars Downton Abbey refugee Dan Stevens as David, a charming and ludicrously handsome Army veteran who shows up without warning on the doorstep of the Peterson family. The family is still reeling from the loss of their son Caleb, and the eagerly welcome David, who says he was one of Caleb's closest allies and friends. Within days, he's become as indispensible to the Petersons as Mary Poppins was to the Banks family: helping out with chores, mentoring their bullied young son, and befriending their bored teenage daughter. But in private moments, there are small hints that there's something strange about David — and whatever it is, it's only a matter of time before he'll go off.

The Guest gleefully hops from genre to genre as the story progresses, but the wit and style remains consistent as the story builds, culminating in a terrifically tense final sequence with a gloriously ridiculous climax. Add in a star-making performance from Dan Stevens and one of the year's best soundtracks, and The Guest leaps ahead as the best pure genre movie release in ages. Given all those qualities, The Guest's extremely limited theatrical release was inexplicable; release a movie this crowd-pleasing in 2000-plus theaters, and you have a solid hit on your hands. Fortunately, the movie hits home video release next month, so everyone will finally have the chance to welcome David into their homes. --Scott Meslow, entertainment editor

The LEGO Movie

2014 was all about Chris Pratt, but in a year that included Parks and Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy, The LEGO Movie might be his best work. Forget the 1984-like premise — although the story about a controlling government is oddly fun and approachable for all ages. What makes the movie remarkable is it unabashed creativity. So what if Batman is suddenly riding around in a spaceship with 1980-something Space Guy? It doesn't make sense, and that's okay. --Meghan DeMaria, staff writer

Listen Up Philip

It might not be the best film of 2014, but Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip is certainly the one that hit me closest to home. One one level, the film, which focuses on a prickly Jewish novelist (Jason Schwartzmann), could be read as a pitch-black comedy about self-involved members of the literati and their pointless problems. But Listen Up Philip digs a lot deeper.

It's almost a psychological study, asking why Philip, his mentor (Jonathan Pryce), and the rest of the people in their orbits act like they do, and whether one's emotional wellbeing is a worthy sacrifice to make in the pursuit of art. In the end, it's fairly clear which side of the argument the film falls on — but even asking the question in a compelling, serious, and above all funny way is more than I could have expected. --Eric Thurm, writer

Only Lovers Left Alive

I'd been waiting for Only Lovers Left Alive since it was teased more than two years ago. Jim Jarmusch, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Hiddleston collaborating on a vampire movie? It was almost too much — but it didn't disappoint.

I swooned as vampiric couple Eve (Swinton) and Adam (Hiddleston) were reunited in Adam's bohemian hovel in Detroit. Eve and Adam spend most of the film's 123 minutes hanging out: basking in each other's company, driving aimlessly around Detroit, making out in alleyways in Tangier, and shooting disdainful glances at Eve's wild younger sister (Mia Wasiskowska). It's a film where nothing really "happens," but everything does. Only Lovers Left Alive will make you want to lie in bed with your significant other for the rest of the day — sharing stories, stroking wrists, and eating popsicles until the sun comes up. --Kerensa Cadenas, writer

Rocks in My Pockets

The first scene of Rocks In My Pockets, a film by Latvian animator-writer Signe Baumane, opens with the narrator (Baumane, playing herself) considering the nauseating logistics of commiting suicide. It's a shockingly grim admission — and one that she peppers with darkly existential humor. "One must be considerate of one's fellow citizens," she deadpans. Baumane, with the help of simple, surreal hand-drawn animations and papier-mache embellishments, tells the stories of four of her female relatives — all of whom succumbed to their demons and committed suicide — in order to better make sense of her own quest for sanity. "I look at my family and ask: 'Can I escape my destiny?'" Baumane says.

Although Rocks In My Pockets is a film about depression, it succeeds because it never wallows in its own sadness. Baumane's colorful, imaginative animations bring her family's story to life, creating a world that's full of joy, sadness, and the stubborn perseverance to keep depression at bay. By confronting the taboos surrounding mental illness head-on, Baumane has made a film that functions as both art and necessary viewing. --Samantha Rollins, news editor

Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer is the most politically radical major film in ages. Starring Chris Evans — perhaps better known as Captain Freakin' America — Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton, the film portrays an explicit proletarian revolution. The setting is a post-climate apocalypse world where the last surviving humans endlessly circle the globe in an advanced high-speed train, divided between a downtrodden underclass packed like sardines in the back, and wretched excess in the front cars. The plot centers around Evans and a band of revolutionaries as they try to take the all-important engine from their tyrannical overlords.

All the politics in the world would be for naught if the movie weren't made well, of course. But Snowpiercer is no plodding, dogmatic propaganda; it's far more gripping than the average action schlock Hollywood serves up these days. It compensates for its modest budget with expertly directed action set-pieces and sparse but well-chosen CGI. And with excellent writing, acting, and plotting, it's a fine watch even if you don't care about the politics. --Ryan Cooper, senior correspondent

Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake might be a difficult sell for mainstream audiences. The plot unfolds extremely slowly, and it's filled with explicit sex scenes between men. Set around a group of promiscuous cruisers in France, the film is about a young gay man who falls hard for mysterious stranger who may or may not be a murderer.

The sex in Stranger by the Lake is frequent, but it's not excessive: in fact, director Alain Guiraudie uses sex as a means for character development. Even with a clinical distance from the subject matter, the film is so tense that when the hero makes one dumb mistake after another, it's hard to stop yourself from yelling at him to stop. --Alan Zilberman, writer

Under the Skin

There are many striking scenes, both gorgeous and unsettling, in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, which is only superficially about a man-hunting alien (Scarlett Johansson) who materializes like a dark angel amidst the drizzly gloom of Scotland. There's the sinuous path of a motorcycle on rain-slicked asphalt; an abandoned child wailing on a stony beach as waves pound the shore; and Johansson undressing herself so completely that even her biggest fanboys might be a tad bewildered.

But the scene that really got me, that filled me with a mix of dread and awe, involves Johansson seducing a man (Adam Pearson) with facial neurofibromatosis — a condition that results "in excess body tissue and non-cancerous tumors," as Pearson himself explained in an essay. Whole dissertations could be written on the juxtaposition of Johansson's delicate features with the lumpy, oversized mask of Pearson's face: on beauty, on guilt and innocence, on lust. But Glazer's most resonant statement is about film itself; it is the visceral impact of the moment, the intense array of feeling produced by the mere sight of something, that stays with you. --Ryu Spaeth, deputy editor